Simitian: Kindergartners should be 5 years old

04.13.2010 | Palo Alto Online | Chris Kenrick

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, has joined a chorus of child-development experts in calling for California children to be 5 years old before starting kindergarten.

On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee will hear testimony on Simitian’s proposal requiring that students starting kindergarten turn 5 by Sept. 1 of the school year. The current cutoff date is Dec. 2.

The new age requirement would be phased in over three years, beginning in 2012. Its effects would be positive both educationally and financially, Simitian said.

Last year, some 289 Palo Alto teachers sent a petition to Simitian requesting the change, saying many of the younger children they see simply are not ready for the increasingly academic rigors of kindergarten.

California has one of the latest kindergarten cut-off dates in the nation, with about a quarter of children starting kindergarten before age 5. Past legislative proposals to change the date have been unsuccessful.

Now, Simitian believes, the state may have reached a “tipping point,” with both the educational and financial arguments for the change looming large.

“Sometimes the right thing happens for the wrong reasons,” he said Monday.

“I think this is the right thing educationally, but is that enough for folks to take action? For some members of the legislature, the financial issues will be more compelling.”

Removing the approximately 100,000 children who would no longer be eligible to start kindergarten would save about $700 million a year, according to the independent Legislative Analysts’s Office. Those savings would continue through the 13 years the children would have been in the system, adding up to $9.1 billion, Simitian said.

He proposes to take half those savings and put it toward preschool programs.

“It’s good for the kids starting kindergarten,” said Simitian, who began his political career as a member of the Palo Alto school board in the 1980s.

“It’s good for the state to reap — if not all — half of those savings, which is still more than $4.5 billion over 13 years.

“And it’s a tremendous opportunity to put some real energy and resources behind the preschool program.”

The main arguments are likely to be over turf and money, Simitian said.

“Different folks will want a piece of the pie. Some will say all of the savings should go to preschool,” he said.

The three-year phase-in — rolling back the cutoff date first by one month, then by another, and finally to Sept. 1 — is designed to allow the excess kindergarten staffing to be absorbed over time by attrition.

Another financial concern is that savings would not be realized in the first year because of California’s longstanding policy of giving declining-enrollment districts one year’s worth of revenue even though they’ve lost the kids to cushion the blow.

“So for the first year, we’re still funding those kids without the net savings. And if we take half of those ‘savings’ and use them for preschool, it’s a net cost. So we’ll have to sort that piece out,” Simitian said.

Simitian’s bill allows parents of younger children to request exceptions from their local school board if they want their child to begin kindergarten at an earlier age.

When he received the petition from the Palo Alto teachers last year, Simitian said he was struck by the fact that it was signed by more than just kindergarten teachers.

“What was interesting was that teachers in the later grades were saying, ‘Oh yeah, we see the impact when these kids show up in our classrooms.’

“So it’s not just a kindergarten issue. It’s a question of how well do these kids do in later years? I was struck by that in terms of the petition,” he said.

The petition was initiated by Walter Hays kindergarten teacher Diana Argenti and Palo Verde reading specialist Natalie Bivas and sent to Simitian last spring.

“As teachers, we see students who enter school at four and a half struggling every day in the classroom,” Bivas said.

“Almost every child who comes to me for reading support has a fall birthday. They don’t catch up somehow down the line. Instead, they end up on everyone’s radar.

“By third grade, teachers start asking me why we didn’t hold these children back. By then, we’re discussing special education intervention.”

Argenti said, “Most teachers don’t like to make waves. We stay in the classroom and do the best we can. But I just wish the politicians could come out and spend a couple of days here.”

Research indicates that beginning school at an older age improves children’s social and academic development, Simitian said.

A 2005 study by the Rand Corporation found a “significant boost” to test scores, especially for
children from low-income families, he said.

Based on these benefits, California’s non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, the California Performance Review and the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence have each called for an earlier kindergarten cut-off date.

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